32,000-year-old seeds are used to regenerate the oldest plant ever. It has also beaten the previous record-holder by some 30,000 years.

A seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a flowering plant native to Siberia that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel near the banks of the Kolyma River (map) has been discovered by a Russian team. According to Radiocarbon dating, the seeds were 32,000 years old.

The story starts over 10 years ago when a team of Russian, Hungarian, and American scientists recovered the frozen seeds in 2007. They were buried 125 feet underground, deep in the Siberian permafrost. The team was investigating the burrows of ancient squirrels when they made the discovery. Fruit and seeds had been perfectly sealed from the elements thanks to the squirrels’ burrowing techniques.

The Russian researchers excavated ancient squirrel burrows exposed on an area thronged with mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses during the last ice age, the bank of the lower Kolyma River. The mature and immature seeds are entirely encased in ice and unearthed from 124 feet (38 meters) below the permafrost, surrounded by layers that included mammoth, bison, and woolly rhinoceros bones.

Image credits: Lisi Niesner

Stanislav Gubin, one of the researchers who explored the burrows shared, “The squirrels dug the frozen ground to build their burrows, which are about the size of a soccer ball, putting in hay first and then animal fur for a perfect storage chamber. It’s a natural cryobank.”

Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada said “This is an amazing breakthrough. I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.” Dr. Zazula showed that the apparently ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern.

Image credits: Lisi Niesner

The Russians’ extraordinary report is likely to provoke calls for more proof. Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England said, “It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect.” Dr. Murdoch noted, the temperature the Russians reported for the campions when poppy seeds are kept at minus 7 degrees Celsius, after only 160 years just 2 percent of the seeds will be able to germinate.

The storage chambers in the burrows contain more than 600,000 seeds and fruits. Many are from the narrow-leafed campion (Silene stenophylla). It is a species that most closely resembles a plant found today.

The Russian researchers tried to germinate the campion seeds but failed working with a burrow from the site called Duvanny Yar. They take cells from the placenta, the organ in the fruit that produces the seeds and thaw out the cells and grew them in culture dishes into whole plants.

Image credits: Yashina et al.

According to the Russian researchers, many plants can be propagated from a single adult cell, and this cloning procedure worked with three of the placentas. They grew 36 ancient plants, which appeared identical to the present day narrow-leafed campion until they flowered when they produced narrower and more splayed-out petals. Seeds from the ancient plants germinated perfectly when compared with seeds from living campions.

It obtained a radiocarbon date of 31,800 years from seeds attached to the same placenta from which the living plants were propagated reports the Russian team.

Special circumstances may have contributed to the remarkable longevity of the campion plant cells according to the researchers. During the arctic summers, squirrels construct their larders next to permafrost to keep seeds cool in order to fruits would have been chilled from the start. The fruit’s placenta contains high levels of sucrose and phenols, which are good antifreeze agents.

Researchers Are Looking To Sequence The DNA Of Plants Grown From 32,000-Year-Old Seeds.

Image credits: Lisi Niesner

Scientists were able to extract tissue from immature fruit and grow a Silene stenophylla five years after first finding the seeds. A study published by the researchers said that the resulting plants bloomed flowers and were fertile. These ancient plants look similar to the modern version that still grows in Siberia today.

The researchers in Austria are now taking things a step further by investigating the DNA of these prehistoric plants. They’re mapping the genomes of the plants and sequence their DNA to see just how the plants are surviving. Russian permafrost investigates the environment further to see what factors helped the seeds stay viable as they are now thawing.

They are looking for adaptations to very hot, dry, or wet conditions that might help them see how other plants could protect themselves against climate change. Professor Margit Laimer, a plant biotechnologist at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna says,“I think mankind needs to be thankful for every piece of knowledge that we are able to create to protect our croplands.” 

Image credits: Yashina et al.

The Botanist Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who was not involved in the study said, “I can’t see any intrinsic fault in the article. Though it’s such an extraordinary report that of course, you’d want to repeat it.”

He is also head of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

According to the new study that permafrost could be a “depository for an ancient gene pool,” a place where any number of now-extinct species could be found and resurrected.

Elaine Solowey, a botanist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel said, “Certainly some of the plants that were cultivated in ancient times and have gone extinct or other plants once important to ecosystems which have disappeared would be very useful today if they could be brought back.”

Regenerated-seed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image credits: Yashina et al.

Many Found This Whole Situation Was Amazing

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